- Civil liberties advocates are expressing doubt that promised reforms to a vast and controversial U.S. surveillance programme will allay concerns that the spying infringes on certain rights.
On Friday, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he would oversee reforms to his administration’s surveillance programme. Evidence of this programme, which was initially leaked in May, showed that the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) had gained access to the communication records of millions of U.S. citizens, sparking public outrage.
“It’s good that President Obama has gotten the message that Americans are troubled to learn of the National Security Agency’s overreaching surveillance of their private communications,” David C. Unger, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), told IPS.
“But more transparency alone won’t be enough, especially if the president intends to keep his proposed review process within the executive branch itself.”
Rather, Unger says what is needed is a “reinvigorated system of checks and balances, with much more vigorous legislative and judicial oversight than we have today.”
In his remarks, Obama listed four reforms his administration was ready to make. The steps include working with Congress to reform the laws governing surveillance, pursuing measures to increase transparency, and establishing “a high-level group of outside experts” to assess how U.S. intelligence agencies utilise communications technology.
The reforms, he said, are intended to “strike the right balance between protecting our security and preserving our freedoms,” as well as “to give the American people additional confidence that there are additional safeguards against abuse.”
In a sign of sincerity about the reforms, on Monday the president sent a memorandum to the director of national intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, ordering him to establish a Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies.
The Review Group’s primary assignment is to “assess whether, in light of advancements in communications technologies, the United States employs its technical collection capabilities in a manner that optimally protects our national security and advances our foreign policy while appropriately accounting for other policy considerations, such as the risk of unauthorized disclosure and our need to maintain the public trust.”
The committee will now have two months to carry out the review, after which it will present its findings to Obama through the DNI.
Right to ask questions
Speaking with reporters at the White House, Obama reminded U.S. citizens about the threat of terrorism the country continues to face. He also lamented the effects that high-profile leaks made by former intelligence analyst Edward Snowden have had on the country’s discourse about the power of its spy agencies.
“Unfortunately, rather than an orderly and lawful process to debate these issues and come up with appropriate reforms, repeated leaks of classified information have initiated the debate in a very passionate, but not always fully informed, way,” the president said.
Yet that opinion clashes with the widespread views of critics of the surveillance programme, who are encouraged that an impassioned public outcry has reached presidential ears.
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“While we’re glad Obama is responding to the public’s concerns, we take [his] promises today with a healthy dose of scepticism,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group which advocates for less government surveillance, said in a statement.
“He may be paying lip service to accountability and transparency, but the devil will be in the details when it comes to whether his proposals will be effective.”
The EFF also remarked that it is “glad” the Obama administration “has been forced to address the matter publicly as a result of the sustained public pressure from concerned voters as well as the ongoing press coverage of this issue.”
In his remarks on the subject, Obama did note that he had been influenced by a meeting held with civil liberties advocates at the beginning of this month. He also said he understood the concerns being expressed by those who oppose the more invasive spying techniques that his administration has reportedly used.
“[G]iven the history of abuse by governments, it’s right to ask questions about surveillance,” the president said, “particularly as technology is reshaping every aspect of our lives.”
Critics of the extensive spying programme agree the advancement of communication technology has played a part in enabling governments to gather vast amounts of information on private citizens.
“Intelligence agencies, by their nature, will always want to collect as much information as possible, and today there are very few technological limits left on what they can collect,” says SAIS’s Unger, author of “The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs.”
In his remarks, President Obama also made noteworthy comments on the importance of openness and adherence to the law, even when engaging in controversial surveillance activity. He suggested this was one way in which the United States distinguishes itself from other powers.
“[W]e show a restraint that many governments around the world don’t even think to do, refuse to show – and that includes, by the way, some of America’s most vocal critics,” the president stated.
U.S. leadership, Obama suggested, depends upon “the example of American democracy and American openness – because what makes us different from other countries is not simply our ability to secure our nation, it’s the way we do it.”
While those leery of extensive spying are aware that U.S. practices are often less abusive than some states that have criticised it, many continue to warn against using that fact as justification for the U.S. abandoning its ethical principles.
“Without a doubt there are worse actors in the world of espionage than the United States, including some of America’s critics,” SAIS’s Unger told IPS.
“[However,] none of that should or does absolve the United States from adhering to the principled standards it has historically set for itself and that are in its own long-term best interests.”